The gay marriage row is bringing the politics of division to a country more used to tolerance
George W Bush once declared that the problem with the French is that they have no word for “entrepreneur”. This story (told by Baroness Williams, who says she was told it by Tony Blair) was intended to ridicule the ex-president. But his overall conceit is sound: a country and its culture can be defined by its vocabulary, or lack of it. The Italians have no word for “leadership”; the Germans have no word for “small talk”; and the Eskimos have no word for “war”.
Some concepts are simply alien to some cultures, which is why the British have no word for “Kulturkampf”. The practice of “culture wars” – dividing a nation into warring tribes and then exploiting that division – has been happily absent from our politics. Anyone visiting the United States during election time will watch, amazed, the bitter arguments about abortion, gun control or the teaching of evolution. The power of these debates is astonishing: they can set neighbour against neighbour, while often bearing only a tangential relationship to the issues actually resolved at election time.
Returning home, a Brit can tune into the evening news and sigh with relief at our less lively, but rather saner, public discussion. But the news, in recent days, has started to sound a little more American. MPs have been quoting the Bible in just the same way, and getting themselves just as wound up. David Cameron’s plans for gay marriage, which were controversial enough in the first place, have been made even more so by his decision to let such unions take place in churches. After two years of trying to discuss this rationally, tribal battle has now broken out. A group of liberal Tories calling themselves the “Freedom to Marry” alliance are up against a group of less organised, lesser known and less telegenic Conservatives who are popping up on TV to denounce the Government. The ordinary viewer may conclude that the Tory party is going through one of its periodic bouts of madness.
I suspect that, by now, even Cameron is wondering if this has not all spun out of control. It’s perfectly easy to see his original logic. As a matter of principle, he believes in marriage and would like it to be accessible to everyone. If the Unitarian Church and certain strands of Judaism want to marry gay couples on their premises, then why should government stand in their way? For the record, I quite agree. Religious freedom in Britain ought to be universal, extended to the handful of churches or synagogues who want same-sex marriage. To lift the ban ought to be a technical issue, an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 requiring no fanfare.
But this time, there has been not just a fanfare, but the drumbeat of war. Nick Clegg released the text of a speech in which he regretted the fact that economic turmoil “gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we 'postpone’ the equalities agenda”. He later withdrew the b-word, but his point was made: that Britain is now divided into two camps. You have the Liberal Democrats, friends of equality. And on the other side, the “bigots” – a group that presumably includes followers of every mainstream religion. A former adviser to Clegg resurfaced to say that his boss ought to have stuck to his word, because such people are indeed bigots.
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